Culinary boom in Portland, Maine
PORTLAND — There was a line of people waiting to nab a precious seat and a basket of fries at Duckfat. At Eventide, a handsome, square-jawed photographer from Travel + Leisure magazine shot lobster rolls as the lunch crowd slurped oysters. Later that night, there wasn’t a seat to be found at Central Provisions as diners grazed on small plates of bluefin tuna crudo.
This is what it looks like when a small city becomes an innovative and nationally recognized hub of cuisine. You can finish lunch feeling like an over-stuffed throw pillow, but walk a few yards, and you spot a shop that sells doughnuts topped with vanilla glaze and sea salt. I dare you to pass by and not try a bite. That one bite then turns into a sweet potato doughnut, which naturally leads to gelato.
Why did I leave those poly-blend slacks with the elastic waistband at home?
“We have a lot of people coming in asking where they should go to eat,” said Johanna Corman, an owner of the recently opened soda bar Vena’s Fizz House in Old Port. “I don’t know what to tell them. How do you pick just one?”
That’s easy: You don’t. Portland is a gastro-tourism paradise. Set aside as many days as you can and stuff yourself silly. Before I could cram another heirloom tomato salad in my maw, the person sitting next to me was telling me that I must try the pizza at Slab or the wood-roasted clams at Lolita Vinoteca + Asador.
Even a gent I met at a dive bar who was too intoxicated to stand up started rattling off a list of restaurants I should visit before I left town.
One way to sample the restaurant scene here with a minimum of fuss is Harvest on the Harbor, a food festival taking place Oct. 22-25 with approximately 30 chefs and restaurants offering their finest dishes. If you don’t make it to the event, you can easily set up your own tour de gluttony. The convenient thing about a small city with a commercial hub jammed onto a peninsula is that you can easily walk to everything.
I had heard about a few great places to nosh in Portland, but for the love of Jenny Craig, the number of good restaurants in a city this size is absolutely criminal. Several more bars and eateries are expected to open in the coming months.
“There are so many things that are happening here in Portland,” said Shannon Bard, executive chef and proprietor of Zapoteca. “There’s a huge influx of chefs coming here from outof state; they’re leaving bigger cities to see what’s going on and opening here.”
I attempted to try as many places as I could, so I cobbled together my own 48-hour, higgledy-piggledy tour of restaurants.
I started with lunch at Duckfat, where Rob Evans, who has appeared on the Food Network, and won the Food & Wine Award for Best New Chef, and the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northeast, cooks crispy Belgian fries in duck fat. I downed a bowl of poutine quickly, and then moved on to tomato fennel soup, and of course I needed to try the fries. So much for pacing myself.
“Things have changed dramatically since we first came here 10 years ago,” said Evans’s wife, Nancy Pugh. “It’s just exploded. The quality of restaurants in this town is so good that it’s a high bar for anyone who wants to open a place now.”
I was walking around at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday and eateries were mobbed. I suppose if I had all of these options, I’d also take extraordinarily long lunches.
I passed by the Holy Donut and stopped because cannoli doughnuts are the perfect after-poutine snack. From there I discovered Vena’s Fizz House.
It’s a fascinating concept. The front of the shop is filled with vintage barware. In the back is a bar with over 100 kinds of bitters and syrups, but no booze. I sipped a drink called Lumberjack Love, which is made with pine syrup (don’t knock it until you try it) and a Gingertini, which I was told Julia Louis-Dreyfus had ordered the week before.
“I had never seen anything like this before, which is why I thought it could work,” Corman said of the shop. “Portland is very open to entrepreneurs, and I think they really embrace quirky and unusual business.”
All those mocktails can leave a man thirsty for a sip of the devil’s nectar (I’m talking about firewater, of course), and conveniently located across the street from Vena’s is Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery. The distillery, known for its gin, is in Union, Maine, but the Portland outpost offers a hooch tasting menu. Slap down $5 and sample four varieties of locally produced gin, wine, or port. This could be the best booze deal in town. I was taken with the Back River Gin, the Three Crow Rum, and the blueberry Bleujolais. I was also officially stuffed and drunk.
I was staying at Inn by the Sea in nearby Cape Elizabeth, and had heard good things about chef Mitchell Kaldrovich’s menu at the hotel restaurant, Sea Glass. I enlisted a tasting companion and we dove into butternut squash soup, fall pear salad, steak frites, and kale and ricotta ravioli. I didn’t order seafood (please don’t judge me). Kaldrovich’s menu doesn’t include conventional offerings such as sea bass or cod because he’s part of a program to protect these fish. Instead, he serves dishes with whiting, redfish, and pollock.
There’s no way to enjoy a meal like that and not finish it off with a digestif. Does whiskey count as a digestif? I needed to make the scene (do the kids still say that?) at the buzzy Portland Hunt & Alpine Club which opened last year. Bartenders sport old time-y mustaches and aprons that are handmade by former Portland chef and restaurateur Erik Desjarlais. The drinks were the kind of demiurgic concotions you might expect to find at Barbara Lynch’s Drink.
My second day in Portland started at Central Provisions, which opened earlier this year and already enjoys a faithful following. It was started by Christopher Gould, who worked with Ken Oringer (Coppa, Toro) for seven years in Boston before defecting north.
“It’s a better way of life for me,” said Gould, “The food scene is awesome, and the pace is more relaxed.”
I ate pre-lunch at Central Provisions, so I stuck to a light, deep-fried course of arancini with a side of paper thin serrano ham, accompanied by homemade soda served in a Mason jar. If you come to Portland, be prepared to sip homemade soda out of Mason jars everywhere.
At Eventide, the much-praised oyster bar that has racked up accolades from Food and Wine, Bon Appétit , and Esquire, I put together a debaucherous lunch of tomato salad, lobster stew, buttermilk fried chicken, and oysters. Thankfully I had help with the lunch because all this eating was giving me a spare tire that would make the Michelin Man jealous.
Eventide co-owner and general manager Arlin Smith moved to Portland from New York and opened the restaurant in 2012. He and his business partners also own the fine-dining destination Hugo’s, and are about to begin work on an international noodle restaurant called the Honey Paw.
“There are a lot of young chefs here who aren’t afraid to do something different,” Smith said.
Damian Sansonetti is one of those chefs. He came from New York to open the Italian restaurant Piccolo, and more recently the casual lunch spot Blue Rooster. At Piccolo I tried the cheese plate, chickpea fritters, and carrots as the bench beneath me struggled to keep up with my increasing girth. I also ate a bacon wrapped hot dog with mango salsa, and pineapple jalapeno honey mustard the next day at Blue Rooster, but please don’t tell anyone.
I ended the night by waddling to Hugo’s, a forebear of the scene when it opened in 1988. I would just taste a dessert. I ordered a dish called the Maine blueberry. It was deconstructed cheesecake with dried honeycomb, blueberry sorbet, and a stripe of something I’ll call a blueberry gummy. I finished it all.
My last stop before returning home to begin fasting was Bard’s Mexican restaurant Zapoteca. Just when I thought I could eat no more, a parade of pork with mole and ceviche arrived at the table. I’m just going to say it: I think Zapoteca is better than any Mexican restaurant in Boston.
“I recently went to New York to look for some inspiration,” Bard said. “I felt like I had great meals there, but I feel like we’re pushing the envelope more here.”
I can’t attest to pushing the envelope, but I can attest to the fact that my belt was pushing against my gut and I was straining to squeeze into my jeans as if I were starring in a Special K cereal commercial. But before I left, I checked the list of restaurants the inebriated gourmet at the dive bar had suggested, and realized I missed one (gasp!). Thus I found myself at Standard Baking Co. ordering a buckwheat chocolate chip cookie . . . purely for research purposes, of course.
My stomach was waving the white flag in defeat. You win, Portland. Now pass the Dexatrim, please.